David R. Ellis is one of my favorite directors working today. He’s never directed anything that was going to be nominated for Best Picture, but he did bring us such highly entertaining genre films as Final Destination 2, Snakes on a Plane and Cellular. His latest movie, Shark Night 3D, comes out this Friday, and he was kind enough to answer my questions about the film, his experience directing the action sequences in films like The Matrix Reloaded and Master and Commander, the tricky marketing for Shark Night and, finally, listen to my take on a Snakes on a Plane sequel. Check it out…
CraveOnline: I’m actually really excited to talk to you. I don’t want to make you uncomfortable, but I think you’re one of the best genre filmmakers working today.
David R. Ellis: Oh gosh, thanks.
CraveOnline: Well, it’s true. In particular I think Cellular is an extremely underrated and clever movie. I’ve actually written about it several times.
David R. Ellis: It’s funny, out of all the things that I’ve [done], I’ve heard that people really enjoyed that film. I think we missed… I don’t think they marketed the film right. You know, they were really nervous about Resident Evil, which opened on the same weekend, so they marketed it to an older demographic, and a lot of people weren’t aware of the film until, like, later in the release or when it came out on DVD. But people seemed to enjoy it.
CraveOnline: One of the recurring clichés in horror movies is that moment when someone says, “Oh, I can’t get cell phone reception.” And you know that if they could get cell phone reception that the movie would be over. You made a movie that was about actually using a cell phone for drama rather than pretending that it didn’t exist. I just thought it was really clever.
David R. Ellis: Well, thank you so much!
CraveOnline: Now, Shark Night 3D. There actually haven’t been any screenings for Shark Night, so I haven’t seen it yet, which I’m actually very embarrassed about.
David R. Ellis: I know. I don’t know why… I guess Relativity decided not to do a press screening, and I don’t know why because they’re very high on the film. But, you know, I guess they were worried that there’s buzz on the internet that people are upset that we didn’t do an R-rated film. […] We didn’t have any boobs or bad language, and excessive gore to be scary. And the Jaws comparison is always going to be a thing. So I think they just were nervous about that and they wanted to get it out there to fans of the movie on opening weekend, [and see] how it’s received and what critics write about it. You know, the publicity and marketing that they’re doing is great, and they’re going to swamp the networks with it [this] week, and hopefully we’ll have a decent opening and people see it, and the critics that want to review it will go see it. Some will be favorable and others will trash it, just like any job. But I just hope that it will get out there to the fans and that they’re entertained because it’s a fun movie and a great script. It’s a good story, it’s got really talented young actors and actresses in it. It’s got good action and it’s got scary-ass sharks. In 3-D, so those sharks will be swimming in the audience. We had one test screening, actually we had two, and at both the main thing everybody said was that it’s a lot of fun. If we can entertain people for a couple hours, and make them escape all the atrocities that are going on around the world, then that’s a good thing.
CraveOnline: You actually come from a surfing background…
David R. Ellis: Well, I was kind of a surfer as a kid. I still do [surf], and I got into the business as a stuntman because of my background in water work. I started working on a Disney film with Kurt Russell called Superdad when I was 19. I had a great career as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, and [then as] a second unit director and now I’m enjoying my time as a director.
CraveOnline: You worked as a second unit director on a lot of movies. How does that affect your plain ol’ directing gigs? Do you shoot a lot more of the action yourself, or does that affect the way you interact with your second unit?
David R. Ellis: It does. You know, I’m very hands-on but I have a second unit director who [really] works for me. Being a good second unit director is duplicating the style of the 1st unit director so that it’s a seamless piece of photography. You’re not directing your own film, [so] it’s not a different style than the rest of the movie. I have guy named Jeff Dashnaw who works with me, is very talented, and we talk specifically about every page we do and he goes out and he shoots it. I myself still do second units. I’m actually in Boston doing big action second units for this movie R.I.P.D., with Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds. I enjoy shooting action, so in between films I go off and do what I want to do. It’s less responsibility and a lot more fun on a second unit, because you don’t have all the other elements to deal with: the budget and all that stuff with the studio, et cetera. So it’s a nice break. Now we’re just waiting for the hurricane to show up, so it’s exciting.
CraveOnline: If you had to pick, would you say you had an action sequence as a second unit director that you’re most proud of?
David R. Ellis: There’s a few, but I think Clear and Present Danger. We had a big ambush in a street in Mexico, in an alley, which became very well known. I like the attack on the atoll in Waterworld; I thought that was cool. The big battle scene in Master and Commander I’m proud of…
CraveOnline: Oh, I didn’t realize you did that! That’s an amazing action sequence!
David R. Ellis: And the freeway sequence on the Matrix sequel was a pretty awesome sequence, you know? So I’m proud of all of those.
CraveOnline: Alexandre Aja did Piranha 3D not too long ago, and I’d heard that there were some problems shooting 3D underwater [so they had to convert it in post]. I was wondering if you’d had any difficulties with that in Shark Night?
David R. Ellis: No, I shot 3D underwater before they ever did Piranha on The Final Destination. I’m really experienced doing water movies. I did Deep Blue Sea and The Perfect Storm and Master and Commander and Waterworld, a lot of big water pictures, and I have the same [director of photography] who did all those with me. Technically it’s more challenging because the rigs are bigger. They’re big cameras. But we had no problems.
CraveOnline: Are you sold on 3D as a storytelling device, or do you think it’s just hot right now?
David R. Ellis: Well, it seems to have cooled off a little the last few weeks, with the last Final Destination. I think it’s becoming too gimmicky. For me, the use of 3D […] is all about putting you in the depth of a 3D world. We see in 3D, and you don’t get that depth in 2D, so my intent in Shark Night was not to try to throw things at the audience. It was just to put the sharks in the audience, and make that the interactive experience for the audience. Because people have such a natural fear of sharks that it’s going to be more of more of an interactive experience when they’re actually swimming right in front of their seats.
CraveOnline: This is more of a suggestion than a question, but I loved Snakes on a Plane and I’ve got a great idea for a sequel. I want to know what you think of it.
David R. Ellis: Okay.
CraveOnline: Snakes on a Space Station.
David R. Ellis: There you go!
CraveOnline: Yeah. There’s snakes on a space station, the only person who’s an expert on snakes in places is Samuel L. Jackson, you send him up there. Just take it, it’s yours.
David R. Ellis: I like it! I like it. Thank you so much, I appreciate it.